Leaders vs gatekeepers: knowing the difference

This year—this horrible, no good, very bad, fluid, weird weird year—has been interesting to say the least.

This year we have: moved our business to the virtual world, lost clients, developed and entirely rethought our service offerings, built and refined an entire marketing strategy from scratch—and we’ve all had to step up and take on new roles and responsibilities to support those efforts.

In the face of all this “newness”, we’ve actually been quite successful and shown great flexibility—but it hasn’t come without setbacks and roadblocks. The most costly being the burden of lengthy approval cycles and distribution of work.

As the CEO and President, approval usually ran through me or other directors across our company. The issue being this put a lot of pressure on us and extra work on our plates—it was also a major cost of delay in getting deliverables out the door.

However, this reoccurring issue was self-imposed—because there was no need to self-appoint myself as supreme gatekeeper. Or for any of my directors to act as traffic cops in managing the flow and approval of work.

Overcoming these challenges meant we had to change, and not change the workflow process, but our behaviors and mindsets. We needed to trust and have faith in our teams’ abilities and insights. And we needed to empower their decision-making and allow them to “run with it” whenever possible.

I work with some of the brightest and most capable people—from strategists and designers, to developers and project managers, and everything in between. My teams are damn good.

But, when I stopped trusting their judgement and empowering their abilities, I didn’t just undermine their talents—I obstructed our business’s velocity, and shouldered the unnecessary burden of being the gatekeeper.

As leaders, when we trust and empower our teams, we’re not just helping them achieve—we’re freeing ourselves up to lead.

Trust and empowerment in action

Get people involved early.

Don’t wait for people to pull up a seat at the table, take the initiative and invite your team to be a part of the decision-making process. 

This isn’t just a demonstration that you value and trust their opinions, but it gives them the strategic knowledge and insights to contribute with greater autonomy and less direction.

For faster execution, better decision making—and greater employee engagement, get people involved early. Empowerment in the workplace is crucial.

Communication is the earmark of healthy relationships (and productive teams).

Communicate, over communicate—and then communicate some more. Excessive right? Wrong.

The art of managing workload distribution, balancing work and life, and turning setbacks into speedbumps is through communication—early, clear, and frequent communication. And that responsibility starts with leaders.

As leaders, we need to be transparent and clear in communicating what we need, the goals of projects, and our vision for the company. By setting clear expectations upfront, leaders can eliminate the need for relearning, rework, and costly breakdowns throughout project roadmaps.

As an added bonus, leaders’ ability and willingness to communicate encourages an environment where team members are comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings—they’re even more open to experimentation, too.

Knowledge is empowering and communication builds trust. Together, they provide an avenue for teams to have honest conversations about workload and emotional bandwidth.

Constant feedback, constant improvement.

I’ve said it a million times, and you’ll hear it a million times more, “feedback is a gift.”

When team members are successful or effective in a new role or challenge they took on, tell them so. Affirmation leads to a continuation and motivation to do more good work. And if a team member misses the mark, let them know (sooner rather than later), and trust them to try again.

Learning doesn’t always happen the first time around, that’s what feedback’s for.

But as leaders we need feedback too, and we need to openly and actively seek it out from our teams. Ask how you can improve, adjust your style, and be a more effective leader—if you want to know how to lead your team better, ask them.

Don’t let people go chasing waterfalls or running down rabbit holes—especially if their efforts aren’t adding value, or if it’s the wrong direction. Give them feedback early so time and effort isn’t lost or wasted.

Trust in business

Developing leaders, not delegating work.

Delegating tasks with the expectation of, ”get this thing done for me,” really doesn’t inspire ownership, or a sense of initiative. Rather it contributes to a culture of follow-the-leader—which means you, the leader, will repeatedly have to play the role of gatekeeper.

So, stay away from, “get this thing done.” Instead try: “I’m going to let you lead this effort”, “you’re the expert, I’m going to yield to you”, or ”I want to see what you come up with.”

The difference may seem semantic. But, when you change your language around how you lead, you shift the way people behave. You can build trust, create authority—and develop everybody’s skills as a leader. Trust and leadership go hand in hand.

When follow-the-leader becomes everyone-is-a-leader, teams won’t feel like they have to, or need to, brief you on every detail or get approval at every step—alleviating your role as gatekeeper.

Growth through mentoring, not approval.

Focus on mentoring your team’s success, not just approving their work. Give them the tools, resources, and support they need to not just be successful, but become successful in new ways.

However, mentorship doesn’t happen organically, or by happenstance. If you want to mentor and encourage people’s success, and growth, you have to really understand what their strengths, weaknesses, and motivators are.

Motivation through approval creates static teams—if you want to stretch people’s capabilities and nurture a culture of experimentation, you have to be a mentor.

Teams that are elastic and dynamic in their abilities and thinking do more with less, they do more quicker—and they are able to pivot and respond to challenges with greater velocity and ease.

As leaders, it is not our job to micromanage, to be the ultimate gatekeeper, or to hold people’s hands—it’s our job to empower our teams with leadership trust and resources to do their jobs and get out of their way.

Through employee empowerment and trust, you're not just supporting better teams, you’re freeing yourself up to lead.